Most evenings, my husband and I are so tired that we hardly talk; we sit or lie down side-by-side, holding hands, or touching feet under a blanket, and either watch television or a movie, or simply listen to the house settle into its quiet nightly hum. It’s partly a seasonal thing — the sharp cold and early darkness of Pennsylvania winter saps our energy — and partly just the marathon we are running right now with three young children and two flexible but preoccupying careers. We are content but worn out, and so, the momentum we keep up throughout the day sputters short when we come to each other.
And recently, this has meant we fall short when it comes to Spanish. When I’m tired (or tense, or grumpy) I either feel incapable of making my mouth form the music of Spanish or incapable of being the only one speaking it in the room. I feel like I’m talking to a wall, or like I’ve gone crazy. Similarly, after a long day, my husband would much rather adapt a stupor state than participate in my Spanish intercambio.
My husband studied Spanish in college, and since. After we got married, he had me label the house in Spanish vocabulary; by the time the blue post-its fell off, (or more commonly, were snatched off by the dogs) he knew the words for the things in our rooms. He watched Spanish-language movies with me, even turning the subtitles off. When we committed ourselves to raising bilingual children, he got Rosetta Stone software, and downloaded the Notes from Spain podcasts, and put them to use at best daily, at worst a few times a week. He benefits from immersion: the best Spanish I’ve ever heard him practice was when we were in Guatemala, bringing home our older daughter. He traveled alone to pick up our son, without fear that he’d be able to get along more than well enough on the Spanish he knew.
This isn’t to say he doesn’t make mistakes. He can’t roll his Rs, he always mixes up the words miga (crumb) and migra (immigration), and he has a charming way of mispronouncing the word damas. It’s just to say that, even when I pick out mistakes, what I hear more loudly is the sound of a person I love speaking a language I love to me.
I want to hear more of this and, to this end, the intercambio is one of the most useful things we can do in Spanish together, and something on which I insist. In addition to the fact that just hearing him speaking in Spanish makes me a bit glowy, my logic is based in equality: if I’m bilingual, my husband should become bilingual, too, for our relationship, for our parenting, and also, for himself. The ability to communicate, really communicate, in more than one language is an accomplishment that feels half like the payoff to very hard work and half like magic. There’s nothing like it.
And so, what gets under my skin, what sets me on pins and needles, what makes me frustrated, is when he doesn’t practice. When our schedule or our fatigue turns our house into an English-only zone. You could make the argument that it’s too ambitious to expect us to have Spanish-only car rides and dinners and evening wine dates on the back porch at this phase in our lives. But it’s not so optional; if you don’t use a language, you lose it. If not now, then never. Neither of us wants to accept the consequences of filling our home with less Spanish, to let this tide of concession wash over our kids.
I’ve never asked my mother the exact arrangement she and my father had, though I know they could both speak each other’s language. My mother’s told me about how she used to sit and listen to his side of business phone calls conducted in English and, at his request, write the mistakes he made on a yellow pad so they could over them later. She’s told me about how he, years before I was born, on a visit to her family in the U.S., came into a room and enthusiastically called out, “Hello! Goodnight!” which in Spanish (“Hola! Buenas noches!”) would have been fine, but here led mainly to a bemused reception, people expecting that he’d come into a room only to run right out. Whatever they may not have had, my parents had the ability to turn towards each other in two languages.
My husband and I brainstorm: maybe we could do our intercambio with our eyes closed, maybe we could get up earlier, or . . . what? Slow time? Drink Red Bull? In the end, the only real solution we arrive at is just to seek out more dedication, the way you do for the things that are necessary. One night, after the children are in bed, we sit sleepily across from each other; he begins, haltingly, piecing together vocabulary to tell me about his day in a language that is not one of his own. And, as he speaks, we both start to uncoil, the intercambio an opportunity to remember and relax into an ease that we have only with each other. The next morning my husband tells me he’s dreamt in Spanish. It makes me feel like he loves me — us — more, and whether or not this is fair, it feels true.